Ahmad Zaki Yamani, minister of petroleum of Saudi Arabia, has proposed in rare detail a future link between oil supply, oil prices -- and United States support for Israel.
Speaking before an overflow audience at Harvard over the past weekend, Mr. Yamani argued that oil production levels in the future must be tied to a just and lasting solution of the Middle Eastern problem.
Mr. Yamani, a lawyer by training, developed the linkage between oil supply, oil prices, and the Arab-Israeli conflict with the precision of a legal brief. But he lapsed into almost Delphic ambiguity concerning when or how that proposed link is to be realized.
The new element in the Saudi oil minister's Harvard speech is the emphatic link between oil production and a political settlement in the Middle East. But Mr. Yamani hedged when faced with somewhat hostile questioning as to when the Saudis might become less "moderate" and become more active in pushing a solution.
He reiterated that "time is in our interests" and that "we have to be a little patient," since better terms might be available later.
There is speculation that the speech was designed to signal Saudi impatience to the Reagan administration, paralleling an earlier occasion when Mr. Yamani used an academic platform in Beirut to announce the peaceful, programmed nationalization of the Saudi oil industry.
He argued that oil-consuming countries gain economically and politically from current oil output levels, while the Arab producers do not. this, he said, was an intolerable situation that he characterized as "an anomaly to be rectified."
Consumers profit politically, according to Mr. Yamani, because "surplus production" from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is used to build strategic stockpiles, and their economies run on the vitally necessary imported oil.
Obvious consumer benefits contrast starkly with oil producers who see "only marginal economic gains from overproduction" -- that is, oil output exceeding their current financial needs. He referred disparagingly to investing surplus funds in "weak currencies" and repeated that oil in the ground is more valuable and should be preserved for future generations.
Having carefully predicated that only consumers now benefit, he emphasized that OPEC also has security objectives, just like the consumers. For the Arab members he categorically defined "security" as a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem, dismissing the Soviet specter as a byproduct of US support for Israel.
Mr. Yamani's paradigm concluded with the declaration that such "political security," in Arab eyes, was "the only just and fair quid pro quo" for the Arab states' continuing to produce "surplus oil."
Responding to questions, Sheikh Yamani clarified the political trade-off, stating willingness to recognize Israel's rights within the pre-1967 borders -- after return of the territories conquered in 1967. He added quite explicitly that the "so-called terrorists, the PLO" (Palestine Liberation Organization) would accept those borders, a parallelism highlighted by Saudi Arabia's critical financial backing for the PLO.
The accelerating insistence by the Saudis on a political quid pro quo reflected here is reminiscent of the signals from the late King Faisal in the month before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Yet, unlike that occasion, Yamani repeatedly stressed positive inducements, such as willingness to sustain oil output given the right political environment.
He steadfastly avoided any hint of confrontation with Washington, stating instead that he saw "definite shifts" in both the US government and news media, thus defusing the apparent urgency of his message.